NEW YORK (Reuters) - Relatives of victims of the September 11 attacks have asked to meet the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department to discuss the agencies’ preliminary inquiry into reports that News Corp reporters may have tried to hack the phones of 9/11 victims.
U.S. authorities have acknowledged they are looking into a report by Britain’s Daily Mirror newspaper that reporters with the rival News of the World offered to pay a New York police officer for private phone records of some 9/11 victims.
The Mirror’s report, citing an unidentified source, has yet to be independently verified but already has fueled U.S. emotions over the wider phone hacking scandal that has consumed Britain and rocked Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp media empire.
New York attorney Normal Siegel, who represents September 11 family members in three legal cases, sent letters on Monday requesting meetings with FBI Director Robert Mueller, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Representative John Conyers, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.
“We commend the FBI for opening a preliminary inquiry into this serious issue and we are requesting a meeting to ascertain the scope, goals and timetable of the inquiry,” the letter to Mueller said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation said he could not comment on the inquiry but said the FBI’s Victim Assistance Program had been in regular contact with 9/11 family matters about the probe.
“We will, of course, provide an appropriate response to any letter from representatives from the 9/11 victims,” said Bill Carter of the FBI’s national press office.
Siegel has represented relatives of September 11 victims in a number of cases, including a successful attempt to force New York City to release audio tapes of phone calls to emergency responders during the disaster and a losing bid to recover traces of human remains from debris buried in a landfill.
“My clients are troubled about the allegation of potential hacking and they are particularly upset that there now exists an allegation that a newspaper would seek to illegally obtain information about their loved ones,” Siegel said.
“I tried in the letter not to accuse anyone, especially News Corp, of anything yet because you don’t want a media frenzy accusing someone if the facts aren’t there. We want to find out what the truth is,” he said.
The Daily Mirror report said News of the World journalists had wanted the phone numbers of the dead as well as details of the calls they had made and received in the days leading to the attacks.
The estates of those killed on September 11 or survivors would have grounds to sue the newspaper for damages if phones were illegally hacked, with potentially greater punitive damages possible if the hacking was found to be intentional and deliberate, Siegel said.
Even if an unsuccessful attempt was made to illegally access voice mails the paper could be liable, he said.
Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Mark Egan and Cynthia Osterman